“One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride,” begins Angsze Choo’s captivating novel about Li Lan, a young Chinese woman with few marital prospects in nineteenth century British Malaya. What follows is a mixture of romance, a coming-of-age story, a tale of the supernatural, and a love letter to Chinese tradition and afterlife.
Li Lan comes from a respectable but bankrupt family. Her mother having died of smallpox years earlier, her father has become an opium addict and has not done his duty by her in cultivating the types of relationships that would lead to marriage offers. So when a wealthy family proposes that Li Lan become bride to their recently deceased son, her father mentions it to her in an off-hand fashion. While uncommon, the practice of taking a living woman into a household as a deceased man’s widow was not unheard of, according to the author’s notes. Li Lan is horrified by the idea, and her father never pressures her, but one can sense that he knows how much easier things would be if she were willing: she’d be guaranteed a home and be well taken care of for the rest of her life.
What seems like it might be a story about a young heroine’s fight to marry for love (hello, Disney!) takes a sharp turn into the world of the supernatural. Beginning with visitations in Li Lan’s dreams by Lim Tian Ching, the deceased bridegroom-to-be, and then moving darkly into the world of the Chinese afterlife, Ghost Bride is full of surprises. There are encounters with demons, ghosts, and supernatural officials. Li Lan is forced to confront her desires and her past all while trying to return to the world of the living.
Ghost Bride is not without flaws. The “rules” of this Chinese afterlife are vague, to be sure, and I did become fatigued by how many times Li Lan is rescued by the timely appearance of a friendly spirit (only the Harry Potter series makes more liberal use of deus ex machina). Li Lan herself could also use more fleshing out as a character. But for all its weaknesses, this is an ambitious first novel that takes the reader to unexpected places. Given that this novel is Angsze Choo’s first, I would say she’s an author we should keep our eyes on.